The Timelessness of the Word

THIS image of a Chinese boy reading atop a water buffalo, unfazed by the rain, is a contemporary classic.

Taken by Norman Matheny just a few years after Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping allowed books to be more widely distributed in the villages, it is the kind of photo that honors a culture -- but gently points past that culture to what has been called ''the family of man.''

Something universal is communicated in the photo immediately, cleanly, and directly. A boy reading -- yet how humble and marvelous the circumstance! No one can plan such a shot. It is a gift.

Actually, as with most art, it took effort to find this special gift. The day Matheny snapped this image, it was pouring rain. His guide and driver did not want to go out. They wanted a clear destination. Matheny didn't have one. He just knew he needed to go out and look. But the result was the best shot he took in China.

All the elements in the photo -- the contrary tilt of the umbrella against the lines of the rice paddies, the power in the buffalo's shoulders and neck as it bends to graze, the completely relaxed posture of the boy, the rope leading up to the hand -- seem to bring into focus the main idea: a desire to read.

Reading is the quiet dynamic here. Everything comes together in the interaction between the boy's solemn, absorbed face -- oblivious to the rest of the world -- and the text. How casually timeless is the effect. Yes, he is about his task of guiding the beast to graze on the grass rather than the precious rice. But the boy has entered other worlds as well. He is reading, launched into an ocean of words and thoughts.

A classic news photo is one that stands up long beyond the deadline. It communicates something fresh and universal. Honoring the act of reading makes this photo more meaningful. A Monitor editor had this image near his desk; I like to think it reminded him of how important the printed word is.

Reading is tied up with knowledge and illumination in a way all its own. An author recently began his book on God and faith with words aimed inside the United States, but that speak beyond borders: ''I wish to express my appreciation for those who are still serious readers in America.... The time and attention they give to their reading flies in the face of the habits that modernity inculcates.... Against all the odds, may their numbers increase.''

Maybe what is so fine about this photo is that no brilliant arguments for the word are needed. The photo says it, all by itself.

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